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LEO Economy Frequently Asked Questions


A view of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter with the Earth's atmospheric golden glow in the foreground at night was taken from the space station.
Night Earth observations taken by Expedition 44 crewmember Scott Kelly captures the Moon, Venus, Jupiter and Earth.


What is LEO (Low Earth Orbit)?

Low Earth orbit (often known as LEO) encompasses Earth-centered orbits with an altitude of 2,000 km (1,200 mi) or less. Low Earth orbit is considered the area in Earth orbit near enough to Earth for convenient transportation, communication, observation, and resupply. This is the area where the International Space Station currently orbits and where many proposed future platforms will be located.

What is the LEO Economy?

The LEO economy is the production, distribution, and trade of goods and services within low Earth orbit. As technology progresses, this economic space will grow to include more groups (including but not limited to governmental, commercial, and academic) that will contribute to the LEO economy’s continued expansion and support future sustainable space enterprises.

Why is expanding in LEO important?

Space is a growing industry and low Earth orbit is full of opportunity. Establishing a robust LEO economy in which many groups on Earth can participate benefits American industry, promotes technological discovery, and increases benefits for humanity that are discovered or advanced through in-space work and research. Once a thriving economy in low Earth orbit has been established, NASA can purchase services as one of many customers. This should enable the agency to focus its resources on other future space exploration programs. 

Who is involved?

NASA has partnered with commercial groups throughout the history of spaceflight through commercial resupply missionscommercial crew activities and the research and development done by the ISS National Lab. American companies have and will continue to play an essential role in establishing a sustainable presence in space.

What is NASA’s plan to deorbit the space station?

It is NASA’s goal to be one of many customers in a robust commercial marketplace in low Earth orbit where in-orbit destinations as well as cargo and crew transportation, are available as services to the agency. At the conclusion of the International Space Station Program, the station will be deorbited in a controlled manner to ensure avoidance of populated areas on Earth. NASA is enabling private industry development of commercially owned and -operated space stations, which are planned prior to the deorbit of the International Space Station to prevent a gap in services and maintain continuous human spaceflight capabilities in low Earth orbit. For additional information about deorbit plans, visit: International Space Station Transition FAQs.

Why is NASA interested in commercializing low Earth orbit (LEO)?

The commercialization of LEO is the next step in humanity’s exploration and expansions into the solar system. Low Earth orbit provides an ideal environment for crew training, research, and hardware testing for exploration use. The ISS has pioneered this domain, and post-ISS, NASA will always have a need for access to a human-rated destination in LEO. NASA intends to be a significant customer of post-ISS services in LEO. 

To support the development of future commercial destinations and services, NASA is increasing access to the substantial resources and infrastructure of the ISS to assist the commercial sector in developing and deploying new capabilities in LEO. Both Congress and the National Space Council have declared that it is in the national and economic security interests of the United States to encourage the development of a healthy and robust commercial sector in LEO.

Are NASA crewmembers allowed to perform commercial and marketing activities?

Yes! Approved Commercial and marketing activities consistent with NASA’s policy are allowed under the Code of Conduct for the International Space Station Crew.

What are the media guidelines? What are the advertising guidelines?

NASA provides guidelines for the use of media, with specific regulations for NASA content used for commercial and marketing activities.

What is NASA Commercial and Marketing Pricing?

NASA has released a commercial and marketing pricing policy that reflects initial rates to gauge the depth and breadth of the commercial market in LEO. These rates offer interested companies a way to plan their business models and activities as NASA moves towards a more commercial mode of operation. NASA expects to revisit this pricing policy at least semi-annually and will adjust it as market forces indicate.

Legal FAQs

What happens to Intellectual Property generated during LEO activities?

The allocation of rights in inventions and data depends on the terms of any applicable agreements or contracts. Typically, under NASA contracts and agreements, contractors and partners have the right to retain, or obtain, ownership of inventions they develop under their contract or agreement. Under most procurement contracts, NASA is required to retain a government-purpose license in inventions and data created under the contracts. Allocation of rights under partnership agreements are more flexible. In general, NASA’s partners are not restricted in their use and distribution of data they first produce in the performance of an agreement, or data first produced by NASA under a collaborative or reimbursable agreement.

To facilitate the commercial development of critical technologies needed for human space exploration, NASA takes steps to ensure that its contractors and partners retain the maximum rights permitted by law, unless NASA has identified a specific need for it to obtain rights in intellectual property for its own purposes as part of an agreement. It is part of NASA’s mission to “seek and encourage the fullest commercial use of space,” so it is NASA’s interest to ensure that its contractors and partners are able to leverage investment to advance commercial space activities.

What can the government utilize intellectual property for under a government purpose license?

While there is no one specific definition defining the scope of a “government purpose license,” a typical license grant in regard to an invention (or similarly for data), might state: “…the Government shall have a nonexclusive, nontransferable, irrevocable, paid-up license to practice, or have practiced for or on its behalf, the subject invention throughout the world.” (FAR 52.227-11, Patent Rights- Ownership by the Contractor.) This is read to mean that the Government may practice the invention itself, or the Government may permit another to practice it on its behalf (i.e., for the purpose of benefitting the Government).

What are march-in rights?

The Bayh-Dole Act provides Federal Agencies with “march-in rights.” (see, 35 U.S.C. § 203). March-in rights allow the government to require the contractor (or patent assignee) to grant a reasonable “nonexclusive, partially exclusive, or exclusive license” to a “responsible applicant or applicants,” if certain specific circumstances exist (e.g., health or safety concerns, lack of practical application, etc.). The foundation of the Bayh-Dole Act supports the principle that inventions resulting from federally funded research should benefit the American people by the development of the inventions into commercially available products and services by achieving practical application of the invention that benefits the public. Should the patent owner refuse to grant the license, then the Government can grant the license itself.

Does the government always retain march-in rights?

Yes, if the Bayh-Dole Act applies, as these rights are statutorily granted pursuant to this act (35 U.S.C. § 203). However, NASA knows of no instances within the over 38-year old history of the Bayh-Dole Act when these march-in rights were ever exercised by any Federal Agency.

Private Astronaut Mission FAQs

Who is considered an ISS crew member?

Anyone who is on the International Space Station (ISS), including NASA astronauts, International Partner astronauts, or private astronauts. 

What is a private astronaut mission? 

A private astronaut mission is a privately-funded, dedicated commercial flight to the International Space Station (ISS) whereby approved commercial activities can be conducted by private astronauts on the space station. These private missions must use U.S. transportation vehicles that meet NASA’s ISS visiting vehicle requirements and will normally be of short duration, less than 30 days. The private astronaut mission sponsor is responsible for selecting the crew and ensuring they meet NASA’s medical standards and certification procedures for International Space Station crew consistent with their role on the mission.

Who selects the crew for a private astronaut mission?

The private astronaut mission provider is responsible for selecting the crew and ensuring they meet NASA’s medical standards and certification procedures for the International Space Station crew consistent with their role on the mission (i.e. Professional astronaut vs tourist).

What kinds of activities will private astronauts perform on the space station?

Activities performed on the space station will be dependent on the level of training of the private astronaut and the agreements in place. A private astronaut assigned to a mission on the space station will have the ability to fill duties that fall into the approved commercial and marketing activities outlined in the NASA Interim Directive, including certain promotional capabilities that meet the requirements of the U.S. Government, and routine operations of the space station. 

What requirements must private astronauts meet?

Private astronauts will have to meet FAA regulatory requirements, which include liability waivers, insurance, and indemnification during launch and reentry activities.

What support will NASA provide to private astronauts?

NASA will perform space station mission integration for all private astronauts to ensure the safety and efficiency of operations onboard. Additional support will be provided on a mission-specific basis depending on private astronaut mission provider needs and requests. This support may include, but is not limited to, cargo launch and return, on-orbit ambient and conditioned stowage, crew time, life support services, crew support consumables (e.g. food, crew provisions, medical kits), exercise equipment, power, camera/video use, and data downlink.

Will NASA charge the private astronaut mission provider?

The total cost of the NASA services provided will vary by mission and be paid for by the private astronaut mission provider. The value of the individual services (e.g. crew time, cargo return, on-orbit stowage) will be determined in conjunction with the goals and requirements of the private astronaut mission. Prices will be consistent with the published pricing policy for the services requested.

Can a private astronaut perform voluntary services for NASA?

Under the law, a government agency is not allowed to accept voluntary services from an individual or entity. That means that a Private Astronaut who is on the space station for the purpose of commercial and marketing activities cannot perform activities for the direct benefit of NASA. If a Private Astronaut meets training and other requirements, that person can certainly provide direct support to NASA under an alternate arrangement.

What kind of agreement will NASA have with a private astronaut mission provider?

Depending upon the goals and requirements proposed for a particular mission, and the entity providing resources or services, private astronaut mission providers may operate on the space station pursuant to a Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contract, a space act agreement, and/or other arrangement as deemed appropriate under the circumstances.

How many private astronaut missions to the space station can be supported?

NASA anticipates supporting up to two short-duration (less than 30 days each) missions with private astronaut missions per year, dependent on visiting spacecraft traffic planning constraints and the health and performance of space station systems. U.S. companies responding to the fourth focus area of the NASA Research Announcement will include the number of crew members for the mission and its duration as part of their proposal. NASA will evaluate the proposed mission feasibility when it is proposed.

How can I become a private astronaut?

Regardless of background, whether for professional or personal reasons, anyone interested in becoming a private astronaut must make an arrangement through a U.S. entity that has an agreement with NASA to conduct a private astronaut mission.

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